Analysis: Stress burns out success

According to stress-inducing forest of statistics revealed to mark ‘World Mental Health Day’ last Tuesday, huge swathes of the world’s workforce are on the brink of work-induced mental breakdown.

Mind, the charity, released figures showing that people believe work stress is more likely to cause mental illness than divorce, marriage or loneliness.

At the same time, the UN’s International Labour Organisation released figures concluding that levels of anxiety, burnout and depression are spiraling out of control, costing employers billions of pounds in lost working time. In the UK, it says, three out of every ten employees experience mental health problems and work-related stress and resulting illnesses are common.

More doomladen statistics are expected to be revealed next week as thousands of human resources professionals gather in Harrogate for the annual Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development conference, where a major survey on the work-life balance among UK workers will be released.

Cynics might suggest that people have always moaned about work, and that all that has changed is that people have simply become more vociferous.But according to Professor Cary Cooper of UMIST, who is speaking at the conference and also carrying out research on the subject for the English ICA, this is not the case.

The professor of organisational psychology and health argues that the Americanisation of working practices in Europe, including an increase in outsourcing, hours at work, delaying and freelancing, is increasing stress levels.

‘Large sections of the UK’s work force are suffering from the adverse effects of a work culture increasingly characterised by stress and long hours,’ he says. ‘Unless a greater balance is struck between work and home life, the health not just of employees but the economy as a whole will suffer,’ he adds.But there are signs that the business community and the government are growing more concerned about the problem.

Littlejohn Frazer, a mid-tier accountancy firm based in London’s Docklands, is among 69 organisations which this month won government funding to help improve their employees’ work-life balance.

The funding takes the form of free advice from top management consultants on introducing flexible working practices and improving productivity.

Sarah Morrison, the firm’s resource partner, says Littlejohn Frazer will use the service to improve existing policies aimed at enabling employees maintain a healthy balance between work and their personal lives, while at the same time enabling the firm to meet its commercial needs.

Littlejohn Frazer, she says, has been looking at these issues for some time. But others are starting to catch up.

Morrison says that part of this is being driven by the demands of job candidates with sought-after technical skills.

Many, she says, are looking for employers with realistic work-life policies rather than those who merely pay lip service to the concept.

‘Attracting the best will enable us to be ahead of the pack,’ she says.Larger firms have also been showing an increased interest in such issues.Deborah Goodwin, a partner in Deloitte & Touche’s human capital advisory services team, says: ‘The issue of attaining a balance between work and home is an increasingly pertinent issue for organisations, especially the Big Five whose traditional image is seen as being about long hours and punishing schedules.

Throwing money at employees in return for their souls will not motivate and retain staff.’

She adds: ‘At Deloittes we see work life balance as something positive and are seeking to encourage it among our staff and share what we learn with our clients.’

Many companies increase the problem by attempting to run their business on a skeleton staff.Littlejohn Frazer’s Morrison observes many are suffering from a ‘just-in-time’ mentality as far as staffing is concerned, hoping get by on a ‘wing and a prayer’.

Some who work under such conditions complain that as their colleagues burn out and go off sick, the workload simply becomes shared between less people, increasing the problem.Dianah Worman, an adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development, comments that rapid changes resulting from new technology mean that many workplaces are going through periods of transformation. This and the drive by many businesses to get more work out of less people is increasing stress. ‘You cannot pull out all the stops all the time,’ she says.

Many of the afflicted will no doubt be hoping the new initiatives eventuality embrace them.

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